All Muslims are aware that Islam prohibits gambling. The prohibition is clearly stated in the Qur’an as well as in many Hadiths. The Hadiths, which often illustrate the meaning of the Qur’anic text, provide further explanation of its applicability, correct people’s misunderstanding, and clarify its scope.
All societies have different forms of gambling, in accordance with the prevailing customs, resources and useful articles they have. These are all grouped together in Islam under the heading maysir, which we translate as “games of chance”, where the result depends on chance or luck, rather than any skill the players have. The types that the Arabs practiced before Islam are clearly mentioned so that they would serve as examples for others practiced by other communities, which naturally have the same Islamic verdict of prohibition.
Ibn Abbas mentions one form of gambling that prevailed in pre-Islamic days: “It used to be asked, ‘Where are those who would join in gambling for a camel? Ten people would enrol, and they would buy a camel for ten newborn camels to be handed over at the time when they are weaned. They will then draw lots, and one would lose, leaving the camel for the remaining nine. They go on drawing lots until the camel is settled on one of them, while the rest would have to give one newborn camel for nothing, at the time of weaning. This is indeed maysir.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
This sort of game provided entertainment and excitement as the participants went about excluding one of their number at a time. It could have dragged on for sometime, so as to generate public participation and support to one or the other of the players. The winner at the end would have had a very exciting time. But here the number of losers is limited to nine, while in modern games of chance the number goes significantly higher. Besides, to the Arabs in pre-Islamic days, this sort of game was a source of pride, as the winner did not use the camel he wins for any purpose. He would slaughter it and give all its meat to the poor and penniless.
In a sense, this was similar to national lotteries which we see in many countries. Very large prizes are given to winners who choose the winning numbers. These are normally selected at random and entered in accordance with the rules of the game. If they are drawn at the time when the result is declared, then the person who chose them is given a substantial prize. The rest of the money is used by the government in support of good causes. Many are the charities, museums, research establishments which benefit from a share of the lottery money. Yet Islam does not permit this. It is totally forbidden.
The point about lottery and similar games that give the proceeds or a portion of them to good causes is that people are motivated only by the desire to win a large sum of money for themselves. They are not thinking of the good causes when they buy their lottery ticket. They only think of the great prospect that would open before them if they win. Moreover, when the government runs a lottery to support “good causes” it assumes that society is devoid of goodness and that people would not donate to such good causes unless they dwindle before them the prospect of winning a large amount of money. Islam prefers instead to enhance the motives to do good among its followers, so that they seek to win God’s pleasure, rather than an amount of money, however large it may be.
The Qur’an describes all games of chance as an “abomination devised by Satan” (5: 90) to highlight its effect on participants and society. Hence, its prohibition is not in doubt. We also note that the view of early Muslims, such as the rightly-guided caliphs, was very strict on it. A report by Rabeeah ibn Abdullah ibn Al-Hadeer, a distinguished and reliable person who was born during the Prophet’s time and is considered among the best of tabieen, i.e. successors to the Prophet’s companions, mentions: “Two men gambled over two roosters during Umar’s reign. Umar ordered that roosters be killed. A man from the Ansar said to him, ‘would you kill a community of God’s creation which glorifies Him?’ Umar did not proceed with his order.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
This is an example of the seriousness with which all gambling was viewed in the early period of Islam. When two people wanted to engage in a game of cockfighting he wanted to prevent this ever happening again by killing the birds used for such a purpose. Needless to say, the birds have no say in organizing the fight or what people gamble with. They are indeed the victims, as in a cockfight both birds suffer a great deal, and one or both may die as a result.
Yet people are always willing to risk their money in the hope of winning a larger sum. The Prophet shows a good way to overcome this temptation. Abu Hurayrah quotes the Prophet as saying: “Whoever of you swears and (unwittingly) includes in his oath Al-Lat and Al-Uzza should say, ‘there is no deity other than God’, and whoever says to a friend, ‘let us bet’, should give the money to charity.” (Related in all six authentic anthologies)
The first point in this Hadith mentions a mistake that the new Muslims could unwittingly make. They might, by the force of habit, include the two main idols that the Arabs used to worship before Islam in their oaths. The Prophet tells them that anyone who says this unwittingly should follow it by confirming his belief in God’s oneness, repeating the first part of the main declaration we say to state that we are Muslims, i.e. La ilaha illa Allah. Thus, the person concerned confirms his belief in God’s oneness and renders the inclusion of those idols in his oath as meaningless words.
The Prophet also gives us an order that anyone who suggests a bet, risking some money for any reason, should give that money in charity. This atones for his mistake and earns him some reward for his money. Thus, he ensures that he wins, because the reward he gains for his charity is certainly greater than any amount he could win as a result of betting or gambling.